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What Alexander Graham Bell Sounded Like (smithsonianmag.com)
105 points by Aloha 1733 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

This is fascinating. For some perspective, it's from April 15, 1885 (128 years ago).

I recommend this article on Thomas Edison's first recording (1878, 135 years ago): http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/scient...

...And the OLDEST HUMAN VOICE RECORDING OF ALL TIME (April 9, 1860 (153 years ago)), by a guy named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville living in France who built a machine to produce visual representations of audio with a pencil (for the study, he didn't know you could replay it): http://www.firstsounds.org/sounds/scott.php

Thanks for the links. Your comments about the "OLDEST HUMAN VOICE RECORDING OF ALL TIME" reminded me about a thought experiment I once heard.

Imagine a pottery wheel spinning thousands of years ago, and people talking as it spun. Then imagine that for some reason, a stick or other object was leaning against the wheel, and engraving a pattern. Theoretically, the vibrations of the people speaking would be picked up (at some level) by this engraving.

The end result is that if you had a device that was sufficiently sensitive, and you could remove a sufficiently large amount of noise (caused by other sources of vibration), then you could reconstruct an actual recording of people speaking thousands of years ago.

Of course, it is not likely that this will happen in the near future, or even at all. In fact, a quick search will show that it has already been used as an April Fools joke by some scientists [0].

However, that is not to say that it is impossible.

The reason I love this thought experiment is because it goes to show that if you start with the presumption that at some point, our tools become better, then there are very few limits to what can be found out. What would happen if you went back 150 years and told everybody that in 150 years, we would have tools that can track the trajectories of sub-atomic particles as they travel at speeds horrendously close to the speed of light?

[0] - http://www.ohgizmo.com/2006/02/20/5000-year-old-recordings-c...

Mythbusters did the 'recording in pottery' thing, if you're interested in that kind of programme.

One of the problems I see is that the pottery surface is inherently noisy, and the signal is very low. That would make recovering anything terribly remote. This isn't about needing better resolution to recover the signal, it's about the signal not being there because it's been obliterated by noise.

Yup, it sure is noisy. But let me indulge in my (not so realistic, but still potentially feasible) thought experiment :)

What if it turns out there is actually a predictable pattern to the noise on a ceramic surface. Perhaps there is a way that the molecules fit together that mean there is a few rules that govern the noise, such that we can then indeed remove it from any "recordings".

Or maybe there's some mathematical properties of noise that are yet to be understood which allow us to remove it correctly.

Or perhaps there is some arm of science which doesn't even exist yet (in the same way quantum computing didn't exist so long ago).

As much as I love the idea of this happening, if we are talking about such tiny variations, it's just as likely that erosion (air, water, pottery mud) would've wiped these tiny variations out.

The fact that when the earliest recordings were made they had no intention or technology to play them back but now we can (at least to get a rough idea) leads to a fascinating idea: capture of a signal may be decoupled from its playback, which may be impossible with current technology. This, of course, brings to mind the 2011 experiment from UC Berkeley (http://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clip...). We shouldn't worry about the horrible quality of the playback for these but focus on recording and preserving the brain activity.

I love this Éduouard recording of 'Gamme de la Voix'. You can really hear the singer go out of key on the 'mi' and 'sol', it's that precise. Seeing music visualized for the first time must have been as wondrous as seeing a Michelin map.

Seeing this reminded me of a few other really old recordings by famous people I've stumbled upon in the past. I still can't get over the amazement of finding these recordings most of us thought anyone would have cared to do or preserve.

Johannes Brahms playing his Hungarian Dance #1 (1889) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brahms_-_Hungarian_Dance_N...

A recording of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1889) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1889_recording_by_Otto_von...

There's also some others located at the US National Park site[1]. Although we all have our love/hate of Edison, one of the more positive things he did was record many famous people out of interest or for the sake of posterity. William Jennings Bryan, William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Edison himself and many others are on that site.

[1] http://www.nps.gov/edis/photosmultimedia/documentary-recordi...

As a sound engineer, listening to this brought a tear to my eye.

I don't know why, but I really like that he pronounces his middle name "Gray-am".

How do you pronounce it? I'm from New Zealand, and "gray-am" seems to be the common pronunciation here.

It's often pronounced "gram" (one short syllable), particularly in American media.

I've lived my entire life in the US, and I distinctly remember at the age of about 7 or 8, reading the name as "Gruh Ham," only to be told that it's pronounced "Gram."

This recording is the first time I've heard someone else pronounce it as two syllables, but it may also be the first time I've ever heard the name pronounced by a non-US speaker.

I am American and have always pronounced it and heard it pronounced with two syllables. Maybe not as deliberately as the recording. I wonder if he is talking slowly as he is because it's so new to him, or maybe we're not hearing it at the right rate, or some combination thereof.

Also, where's the thick Scottish accent?

He's actually enunciating that way because his wife was deaf. She could read lips, so he would enunciate very carefully.

This is actually quite a Scottish accent, however it does not really fit with the stereotype (Groundskeeper Willy et al). To me (a Scot) it sounds very similar to George Galloway's accent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_AOTexf6uc

There are numerous distinct accents across Scotland despite it being a pretty tiny country.

I guess my expectation was that the older the recording, the goofier the accents would sound, due to changes over time. For example, the recordings of Edison have him sounding like no American alive today.

Haha, your average Scot might get upset by any implication that our accent is in any way "goofy" but I completely understand what you mean

>where's the thick Scottish accent

His father would have elocuted it out of him.


Americans have a problem pronouncing some things.

I always though it would be two syllables.

I can't find a reason why it would be otherwise (unless it was French, but even then...)

"Americans have a problem pronouncing some things."

Tell me, how do the English pronounce "Worcestershire"?

That is the way it is pronounced in the uk.

Gee, that's funny -- I'm pretty sure that is how it's pronounced.

I was interested to see some people say they've commonly heard it pronounced as a single syllable. I've heard that, but I didn't know it was common.

Here's a website with an audio clip of that pronunciation (http://inogolo.com/pronunciation/Graham)

Here's a website that has many pronunciations. (http://www.forvo.com/search/graham)

The Forvo website is interesting because it has some American (?) accents using the 2 syllable form, and some (Lindsey Graham) using the single syllable form.

(DuckDuckGo's search results were particularly useful for me here.)

"the inventor of the world’s most important acoustical device—the telephone"

and... no.

Bell stole the telephone invention to Meucci.

Well, the photophone was actually a much cooler device anyway. Experimental wireless transfer of human speech over 200 meters from a completely passive device using optical scattering? In 1880? Sweet! The receiver was active, but transmitter was not at all. Somewhat similar to modern UHF RFID technology.

Bell was actually a pretty awesome engineer largely motivated by wanting to help the impaired.

Well, at least Antonio Meucci's Globe Telephone Company was sued by the Bell Telephone Company for patent infringement. It was really a messy law suit where one question was whether Meucci had invented the electromagnetic telephone or "just" an acoustic one.

We still don't. The file format in this link was also invented by Bell.

Can you explain what you mean? I don't understand.

I think he's poking fun that the mp3 file won't play. It isn't for me anyway..

It doesn't play for me either, using Chromium (the distro pacakge of Google Chrome) on Linux Mint 14. But view source, Ctrl+F mp3, and doing wget on the name of the file worked just fine.

They should really make a lossless .wav or .flac available IMHO, but that's a different gripe...

Did you try downloading it? It works for me. (http://media.smithsonianmag.com/audio/alexander-graham-bell....)

How strange is that it looks exactly like a CD?

The center hole is too small or at least its proportions don't match up with a CD.

But in any case, how would you design a recording device? The text says there were mostly cylinders and discs, which makes sense because you can put a spiral track on those. In the disc case you would have to rotate them around their Z axis which pretty much requires a hole in the center. So I guess it's not that surprising that Bell's cardboard-and-wax disc, vinyl records, laserdiscs and CDs all look pretty similar.

Listening to a recording made in 1885. Mind blown.

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